But Rocky's particular style and signature aggression reminded many boxing fans of an echo of the past – the Manassa Mauler Jack Dempsey. (60-7-8, 50 Knockouts) Jack Dempsey was boxing's first celebrity. During his prime, his popularity escalated to the point where it rivaled Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin. Dempsey was also the primary inspiration for Mike Tyson, who borrowed many of Dempsey's signature moves in the ring.
Dempsey and Marciano fought during different eras, but it's rare that one is discussed without the other eventually being mentioned. How similar and dissimilar were they? Who would have won if these two legends clashed in the middle of the ring? Let's discuss...
The Original Mauler
I shudder to think what boxing would be like today if Jack Dempsey never existed. Obviously, there were always boxing fans. Jim Jeffries was a popular athlete and Jack Johnson was a notorious one. But Jack Dempsey changed boxing forever when he smashed the jaw of Jess Willard with that dynamite left hook on July 4, 1919. Dempsey was so popular that he drew boxing's first million dollar gate. Because of his savage aggression and knockout records, he attracted people who were not boxing fans. Before the arrival of Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey was the most popular boxer of all time.
It was Dempsey who wrote the textbook for Tyson, Marciano and Frazier. Each of these men channeled Dempsey's bobbing and weaving and powerful hooks and uppercuts. Dempsey's dynamite hook to the body is still imitated to this day.
A Clash Of Styles
Dempsey and Marciano often drew comparisons to each other. In fact, when Marciano first appeared on the scene, some writers labeled him “another Dempsey.” On the surface it's easy to see why people said that, but when you examine the two guys, you'll see a lot of differences in their styles.
Marciano was totally different in this regard. He threw each punch as if it was a baseball. He threw every punch as hard as he could, and he often put all of his weight behind it. The problem with this is that if he missed, he was off balance and vulnerable to counter attacks.
This is precisely how Archie Moore was able to drop him. In the second round of that fight, Rocky was swooping in with a lunging punch and Moore clocked him when he was off balance diving in. Observe.
But here's the thing – Rocky threw these looping blows but he threw them from all directions. From his crouch, he could punch upward from down below, or he may throw a wild shot from elsewhere. He just kept attacking and there was no way to see where each punch was coming from, giving you no chance to protect yourself sufficiently.
Moore had early success against Rocky but as the rounds progressed, Rocky beat the man and beat the man and beat the man until he wilted.
Rocky fought like a propeller that kept moving right in on you. He once said that he fought as if there's a fire right behind him and the guy in front of him is constantly in his way.
Dempsey was more like Mike Tyson in the sense that he attacked in spurts. Dempsey would attack his way inside, but once there he didn't punch as much, leaving him open to be clinched or giving his opponent time to counter or run away. But you gotta watch out for that left hook, which was the punch that got most guys in trouble. See below.
Gene wasn't awkward, slow moving and huge like the guys Dempsey developed a reputation for destroying. Those guys stood and fought Dempsey, and paid the price for it.
However, Gene was much smaller and more elusive, playing boxing as if it were a game of tag. He would pop Dempsey and get the hell out of range before Dempsey could retaliate. Tunney closed both of Dempsey's eyes in their first fight. After losing, Dempsey's handlers had to lead him across the ring to shake the new heavyweight champion's hand.
How would Rocky Marciano do in the same situation against Tunney? Well, the Tunney-Dempsey bouts were similar to Rocky's first battle with Jersey Joe Walcott. Yes, Rocky was behind on points at the time of the stoppage, but Rocky was always on the attack and cut the ring better than Dempsey. Walcott was a much better escape artist than Tunney, even utilizing a shuffle and sneaky sucker-punch to his arsenal. But in the 13th round, Marciano was able to corner Walcott and feint a jab.
Walcott raised his right hand to counter the “jab,” but Rocky blasted a surprised Walcott with his Suzy-Q right hook. Walcott slumped to the canvas unconscious, and we had a new heavyweight champion.
Both Marciano and Dempsey were relatively small heavyweights with a huge wallop in both hands. But the main difference between them power-wise is that Marciano's right hand was his sledgehammer, while Dempsey's fierce left hook generated some of his most famous knockouts.
Dempsey could punch alright, but I think it was the speed and ferocity of his attacks that made his blows so brutal. Jack would leap off the mat to land a punch. He also developed the “Dempsey Roll,” which was a string of vicious hooks in succession. Until the day he died, Jess Willard swore that Jack had a pipe hidden in his gloves. He just couldn't fathom that the much smaller man could pack such an unbelievable wallop.
There's also the story of the robbers that attempted to mug an elderly Dempsey, who proceeded to knock them both to the ground. The men said that it felt like he had rocks in his hands.
Marciano was not slow of hand, but Dempsey's hand speed was better, and overall his accuracy was better.
But Jack Dempsey himself stated that Rocky hit harder. This is what he had to say about The Rock's power in the 1953 fall edition of Fight Magazine...
“What everyone forgets is that Marciano can punch harder with a right hand than any modern-day heavyweight. In his first fight with Walcott, Rocky needed only one blow to win the title. The power in his right scrambled Jersey Joe's brains at Chicago.”
“I've scored my share of knockouts along the way, but more often than not my opponents got up after being knocked down and had to be knocked down repeatedly. The same is true of Joe Louis. But Marciano only needs one solid smash and it's over. That's why I say Rocky Marciano is the hardest-hitting heavyweight champion I have seen.”
What he said is very much true. Jack rarely knocked guys cold the way Rocky did. For example, Willard went down numerous times in that brutal first round but Jack could never finish him and exhausted himself trying. Compare this to Marciano's knockout victims. Walcott, Louis, Vingo, Matthews and many others were put to sleep. Others, like Archie Moore, were too beaten and battered to continue on.
Rocky also knocked out a lot of guys with his left hook, especially early in his career. His knockout of Harry Matthews was a brilliant example. It was evident that trainer Charlie Goldman's teachings were starting to pay off. During the second round, Rocky absolutely destroyed Matthews with a Joe Frazier-esque double left hook.
Both guys had a lot of heart and toughness. Jack Dempsey was famously knocked out of the ring by Luis Firpo. The image was painted by George Bellows. The fight was an exciting one. There were 11 knockdowns in two rounds before Jack knocked him out. It's not often that a guy gets knocked out of the ring only to come back and knock out his opponent.
While Marciano never lost, Dempsey was only knocked out once during his 6 losses. No one knows the true story of what happened when Firemen Flynn knocked him out in 25 seconds. There were reports that Jack hadn't eaten in four days. Some, including Dempsey's wife, said that he threw the fight because he was offered more money to lose. Either way, Jack got his revenge by knocking out Flynn in the first round of their rematch.
Marciano was a clutch fighter. The closest he came to defeat was when Ezzard Charles split his nose. With blood constantly pouring, Rocky needed an emergency knockout. The ring doctor only gave Rocky one more round. Rocky responded by pummeling Ezzard to the canvas to maintain his championship and undefeated record.
Another scare Rocky had was against Walcott. As I explained earlier, Rocky managed to maneuver Walcott to the ropes and get his punch to the target. Rocky always found a way to win in urgent situations.
Dempsey was pretty good at knocking out much bigger men. His secret? His sparring partner was the talented 6'6 Big Bill Tate. Because he was African American, Bill unfortunately never got a crack at the heavyweight title. But from all accounts he deserved one. He was a damn good fighter from what I read and seen. Regardless, he helped shape the history of boxing by preparing Dempsey to clash with the then-heavyweight champion Jess Willard, who was the same size as Tate, but not as good of a fighter.
During his first round with Willard, Dempsey was more than prepared. At first he circled his prey, waiting for an opportunity. The moment Willard missed a loose jab, Dempsey exploded with his left hook, dropping Willard and allegedly breaking his jaw in 7 places.
During Marciano's reign, there were not many giants to fight. It'd be easy to assume that Rocky would be clueless on how to get inside and fight big men because he never had to when he was at the top level, but history proves he could handle big guys when he needed to.
For starters, Rocky damn near killed Carmine Vingo, who was a big Italian fighter standing at 6'4. Unfortunately there's a lack of footage of this fight available, but Rocky's sledgehammer right hand literally knocked Vingo into a coma.
When Rocky was a journeyman, there were other big men he knocked out, and according to the numbers, he often conquered them quickly in a vicious, Dempsey-esque manner.
Here's a short list of some of the men over 200 pounds that Rocky defeated.
Bill Hardeman (206 pounds) : KO 1
James Connoly (213 pounds) :TKO 1
Artie Donato (201 pounds) : KO 1
Elbridge Eatman (206 pounds) :TKO 3
Johnny Shkor (220 pounds) :TKO 6
Bill Wilson (229 pounds) :TKO 1
Keene Simmons (200 pounds) :TKO 8
Rocky was able to cut off the ring and bring the fight to the great 6'3 Muhammad Ali, who had the speed of a graceful gazelle. Keep in mind also that Muhammad danced on his toes, which made him actually around 6'5 as he skipped around the ring. This didn't deter Rocky.
Would Jack Dempsey have the same success against Ali? I say no, because Dempsey wouldn't consistently overwhelm him with a high work-rate the way Rocky and Frazier did. Also, Dempsey wasn't so hot against “stick and move” guys in the Gene Tunney-Muhammad Ali tradition. But he did possess the one punch Ali was always most vulnerable to throughout his career – the left hook. But a Dempsey-Ali fight is a story for another blog.
Some say Marciano fought during a weak era. You could argue that, but he knocked out at least four hall of famers – Moore, Charles, Walcott and Louis.
Let's be real here. Ezzard Charles was only 33 and two years older than Rocky when they fought. (Rocky was 31). Jersey Joe Walcott reminds me of Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers in the sense that he got better as he aged and put on his absolute best ring performance ever against Rocky until he got cracked in the 13th round.
Archie Moore was aging for sure, but the problem was that each time he fought a quality heavyweight, he was knocked out. In addition to Marciano, Moore was also KO'd by Floyd Patterson and a young Muhammad Ali. Moore recaptured the light heavyweight title not long after losing to Rocky. All of this confirms to me that Archie was still great, but was just out of his element against heavyweights.
Joe Louis was still fundamentally sound at the time he fought Rocky. With the exception of his loss to Ezzard Charles in 1950, Joe was winning his fights.
However, his victories often lacked the impressive knockout flash of his prime years. Joe was confident and had a great fight plan against Marciano, but his timing and reflexes were gone.
To hear Rocky tell it...
"What surprised me was that Joe didn't have much of a right. They told me he had lost some of his power, but I didn't expect nothing. That's what his right
hand was – nothing." -Rocky Marciano
This says a lot, because ring officials literally had to scrape Jimmy Braddock off the canvas after he got knocked out by Louis' right hand years earlier.
The best guys Dempsey fought were basically just more impressive from a size perspective. Jess Willard was aging, out of shape, and had been largely inactive since winning the title from Jack Johnson. Luis Firpo was a real warrior at times but far from all-time great material. Jack Sharkey was a capable heavyweight but, like many others, crumpled when he felt Dempsey's left hook.
Dempsey was not a great heavyweight champion in my opinion. Instead of defending the crown he once worked so hard for, he went to Hollywood and got a nose job. Since he used to be a hobo, he quickly took advantage of his rich new lifestyle. I wish he'd have been an active heavyweight champion.
Following orders from his management, Dempsey avoided facing black challengers. Because he refused to fight black athletes and was inactive for much of his championship reign, I don't think we ever got to see Jack Dempsey at his best. All we saw were brilliant flashes of potential in a number of fights.
Marciano was the exact opposite. He came into each fight in perfect condition. In fact, he trained twice as hard as his opponents, which gave him an edge in stamina. As his opponents got winded and tired later in the fight, Rocky was still fresh as ever.
Rocky never ducked anyone and fought everyone in front of him and won. That's what a heavyweight champion is supposed to do. Dempsey got caught up in Hollywood life after winning the title, but when Rocky held the strap, he wanted to prove that he was the absolute best fighter in the world.
Rocky also got really close to Muhammad Ali during the filming of the Computer Fight. His brother Peter Marciano revealed how the two shared a grapefruit and discussed how they could bring society together during a time of racial bigotry.
I respect Marciano as a man. I interviewed Marciano biographer John Cameron, who explained that Rocky didn't have a racist bone in his body. Aside from having a chief black sparring partner, Dempsey seemed to be a man of his time. (There are news accounts confirming Dempsey's racism, but I won't get into that discussion on here).
Because of his small size, clumsy movement and short reach, Rocky had no business boxing and much less being heavyweight champion. But he overcame these “handicaps” and not only won the heavyweight title, but he is to this day the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated. This is why when people say that Rocky Marciano is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, I never argue.
Finally! I know this is what you're here for. This is a hard one to call. To do a round-up...
Dempsey was a fast starter who ended fights early, while Rocky generally had to warm up into the fight and scored knockouts later.
Dempsey had faster hands than Rocky.
Rocky hit a little harder than Dempsey.
Rocky cut much easier than Dempsey.
Rocky was dropped two times in early rounds, the time of the fight when Dempsey is at his peak.
When you look at that, you'd assume that Dempsey wins and probably by a quick blowout. But it's not that simple for me.
Before I make my prediction, I must note that Rocky was actually 5'9 according to his biographer John Cameron, while Dempsey was around 6'1. Dempsey being taller is not an advantage. In fact, I bet it would work against him.
Also, I feel that Rocky was smarter than Dempsey. The way Rocky set up Walcott with that jab feint was a thing of beauty, as was his impressive double left hook knockout against Harry Matthews. Rocky always had tricks up his sleeve. Dempsey, however, came out with one plan - to destroy you and go home.
I see the fight going like this – Rocky is overwhelmed initially and hits the canvas. He gets up and smothers Jack by clinching, mauling and pounding away to his body on the inside. (This is how he responded after getting floored by Walcott)
Dempsey's style is based on him being the shorter man, but in this fight he'd be the taller man and would have to adjust to that. And I don't think he could.
Marciano was also a much busier inside-fighter than Dempsey. He would be in his element. It's Jack who would get uncomfortable and start backing away. Once Rocky gets inside and starts wearing on you, you're gonna go eventually.
Inevitably, perhaps sooner than later, Rocky would land a severe punch – the kind of punch that would take Dempsey by surprise and make him respect him. From that point on, Dempsey wouldn't be as aggressive and fight a bit more cautiously. That's when Rocky would step up his pace and land punch after punch, punch after punch, until eventually an exhausted and battered Dempsey loses by TKO late in the fight.
My official prediction? Rocky Marciano defeats Jack Dempsey in round 7 by Technical Knockout.